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Make Room for Green Work

By: Jenifer Becker

August 29, 2006

Bamboo furniture. Countertops made from recycled glass. Cork floor tiles. Today, these items are considered cutting edge and are meeting the needs of New York's green building designers. Adding to their environmental allure, some of these green products are produced right here in New York City. This not only boosts the local economy but cuts down on the transportation costs and emissions associated with bringing the materials to the construction site. Now more than ever, it is becoming both feasible and economical to construct green buildings that use less energy and fewer toxic chemicals partly because there are more green products hitting the market.

To effectively cultivate a green manufacturing sector in New York City, we must increase local demand for green products, assist companies in greening their operations and ensure there is quality, affordable production space where companies can grow. The time to act is now as much is at stake.

As green building construction increases in New York City, green manufacturing — the production of goods that are energy-efficient, non-toxic, made from recycled materials and/or are made locally — can provide real job opportunities for local residents. Today, 78% of the City's production workforce is comprised of people of color and 64% are immigrant. Moreover, manufacturing jobs continue to provide career ladders for workers with limited formal education or English skills. For New York City, which continues to lose manufacturing jobs, identifying such competitive advantages for the 7,000 manufacturing firms that remain is imperative — after all the sector employs approximately 113,000 New Yorkers and pays decent wages that can support a family.

Last month, the New York Industrial Retention Network, in collaboration with the Industrial & Technology Assistance Corporation, released Manufacturing Green: Producing a Sustainable NYC. The report assessed the capacity of New York City's manufacturing sector to meet the growing demand for green products, identified several ways the City could assist local firms in creating a green manufacturing sector and spotlighted the many challenges facing companies when they introduce new products. Based on this analysis, it spelled out three major recommendations:

First, the City should leverage its own tremendous purchasing power to stimulate markets for green products in the five boroughs. The laws of supply and demand hold true for the green product market: as demand increases, new products will surface. Local Law 86 of 2005, known as the "NYC Green Building Law," mandates that most publicly financed buildings meet green building guidelines. Local Law 86 is expected to impact over $12 billion in construction through 2015. This in itself will generate significant demand for green building products. With sustained demand from the public sector, local manufacturing companies will have an incentive to begin investing in new, environmentally-friendly products. By actively reaching out to local firms about the products the City needs for these projects and by encouraging actors in the private market to purchase locally manufactured green building products, the City will help the market for green manufactured goods flourish.

Second, the City should team up with its many local academic institutions to help companies design and incubate new products. Deciding to work with unfamiliar materials and budgeting for staff time away from the factory floor is a difficult choice for New York's small manufacturing companies. Collaborating with universities that have research labs, prototype machinery and other resources, namely federal funds to help commercialize new technologies, can help alleviate some of the costs for local firms.

Lastly, the City must maintain a viable amount of manufacturing-zoned land so there is affordable, quality space in which companies can create their products. Over the last 25 years, many of the City's premier industrial neighborhoods have been converted to residential uses. This trend has major consequences for industry. Faced with rising rents, lost leases and an overall real estate squeeze, companies are having trouble finding space in New York, let alone the money or energy to develop new products. This space squeeze is ever-more-difficult to address in light of New York's growing population and chronic housing crisis. Densely-developed cities across the country are grappling with how to balance the space needs for housing, especially affordable housing, and manufacturing. Despite declining numbers of manufacturing jobs, many cities, including New York, still maintain a critical industrial base and struggle to insulate industrial properties from a speculative real estate market that views manufacturing space as cheap to buy, easy to develop for housing, and very, very profitable.

In New York City, the Bloomberg Administration has taken important first steps by identifying Industrial Business Zones (IBZ), areas with concentrations of industrial jobs that it has committed to maintain for industrial uses. This policy, while a major step forward, could have a much bigger and longer lasting impact if the IBZs were codified in the zoning resolution in order to clarify their legal status and to spell out the City's enforcement powers. Companies need long-term stability and predictability in order to invest in new equipment, add product lines and hire more people. It is essential, if the City is going to nurture a green manufacturing sector, that there are both discreet areas for manufacturing secured over the long-term and sustainable infrastructure for moving raw materials and finished products. Without the space to produce in the five boroughs and the means to transport materials and goods, there won't be a local manufacturing sector to support.

New York always prides itself as being the center of the fashion, finance and media worlds. With some encouragement and assistance, we can add green manufacturing to that list. For the City, this means good-job growth opportunities to be realized. For local companies, in the wake of global climate change, rising fuel prices and diminishing natural resources, green manufacturing will continue to make sound business sense. High design + earth friendly markets = the future of New York City's manufacturing sector. Let's make room for it.

Jenifer Becker is the Director of Research and Policy at the New York Industrial Retention Network. She is the co-author of "Manufacturing Green: Producing a Sustainable NYC" available at Spec It Green. She manages the citywide Zoning For Jobs Coalition.
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